Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs an amateur boxing club in Bangkok as a front for drug smuggling. After his brother is killed, his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) orders him to avenge his brother’s death. However, local law enforcer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is a constant presence, one that is both ethereal and deadly.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling, 2011’s Drive, has become one of the most revered films of the past few years with many praising Gosling’s ‘strong, silent type’ performance as well as Winding Refn’s existentialist themes and stunning cinematography. With Only God Forgives, both parties offer up more of the same, although those hoping for Drive 2.0 will be sorely disappointed.
It’s difficult to really get your head around Only God Forgives in that it’s one of those films that will likely reflect back at you a piece of yourself, giving out whatever you bring to it. It’s a very voyeuristic film; the POV shots placing you within the characters, Julian in particular, which allows you to draw your own conclusions, something that will likely empower some and frustrate others.
The film’s story is reasonably straightforward but there’s a huge amount going on beneath the surface, if you want to see it that is. With castration anxiety, oedipal issues and a heap else, Only God Forgives is littered with subtexts and allegorical sections that really give the film more depth than it first appears, although the fact that these themes aren’t plainly laid out may irk those who prefer a more conventional, straightforward narrative.
The aesthetics of the film may also be slightly contentious for some. The cinematography is undoubtedly impressive, but it does feel slightly contrived at times. Everything is lit to within an inch of its life, often bathed in various hues of red, pink and blue. It’s so highly stylised that it can feel like you’re watching a slideshow of neon-drenched artwork. This does, however, give the film an ethereal, nightmarish quality that, for me, was wholly absorbing.
Performance-wise, it’s difficult to really elaborate on anyone other than Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian’s disturbing yet cowardly mother, Crystal. Vithaya Pansringarm just really hurts people and Ryan Gosling stares at things, and that about sums up those performances. Scott Thomas is excellent, however. As Crystal she’s a truly repulsive creature but steals every scene she’s in. When Julian tells her that his brother raped and killed a young girl, her response is simply, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” She’s the beating heart of the film and, although abhorrent, constantly demands your attention.
Mention has to go to the Cliff Martinez’s superb score. Martinez contributed heavily to the excellent score for Drive and he’s once again delivered the goods. A mix of unnerving, industrial pieces mixed with more catchier tunes really helps add a huge amount of atmosphere to the film and is just as essential a component as the direction or cinematography.
Everything about Only God Forgives feels very deliberate and methodical. From the framing of the shots to the slow, purposeful movement of the characters, it’s clear that Winding Refn had a very clear vision of what he wanted to create, almost regardless of the effect it would subsequently have on the audience. In fact, everything feels so planned out that it comes close to crossing the line into pretentious self-parody territory at times. If Quentin Tarantino was trying to make a Stanley Kubrick film, Only God Forgives would be the result.
Having said that, it drew me in, asked questions of me and made me think, and not a lot of films have done that this year.